The Summer Serial 2011.
By George Bassett.
IT WAS NOT UNTIL we had crossed the meridian of one hundred and eighty degrees that I began to be seriously interested in the career of Ysonde Potwin. On the evening of the day when we had first begun to count ourselves east of Greenwich instead of west of Greenwich, I was listening to the purser’s stories with a patience born of long practice, when I amazed myself with the discovery that he had something new to say.
“Have you noticed,” he asked me, ” that there is anything strange about our friend Mrs. Potwin ?”
“I can’t say that I have,” I replied. ” She is an American, you see, and I have not known a great many American women; and I don’t think we have women of precisely her sort in England. With us they are either a little more careful or a little less careful.”
“I don’t mean that,” said Mr. Chamberlain. ” She is a dreadful little flirt, and of course she is divorced, and there are all sorts of stories about her. But haven’t you seen anything remarkable in the way the Japanese take care of her?”
“No, nothing very special,” said I. ” They are very quick and attentive, as Japanese stewards always are, and I fancy that servants, like other people, are always ready to wait on a pretty woman.”
“There’s more than that,” said the purser. ” I have to keep my eyes peeled on board this ship, I can tell you, and there isn’t much going on that I don’t know. You see, I really have most of the responsibility. The engineer tells the stokers to keep the boilers hot, and that’s all he has to do. The captain tells the quartermasters to steer the course that the chart shows, and that’s all he has to do. And between them they keep the boat moving until the time comes to drop anchor. But whether she is moving or not, my work goes on all the same. Here are all of you passengers, cooped up on board like animals in a menagerie, and I have to see that you are fed and kept in order. You see, I have two difficult classes to deal with—the drunkards and the missionaries. When we touch at Honolulu there is always a lot of men going down there to have a spree. It is a regular Fiddlers’ Green for the men who keep respectable eleven months out of the year, and then make even with an awful racket. They come from as far east as Chicago, just to go down to Honolulu and let off steam a long way from home. Then there are all the wild young fellows whose families send them off to Japan and China because they have been getting into trouble. And when there is too much whiskey-and-soda in the smoking-room, or when the poker game gets stiff enough to make mischief, I have to remonstrate. Sometimes it’s ticklish business. The pursers on the boats from New York to Liverpool are nothing but baggage-masters. Any fool could do their work. But on these long runs a man has a great deal to think about, I can tell you.”
I expressed my profound respect for the moral sway exercised by Mr. Chamberlain, who continued :
“As for the missionaries going to China or coming home again, they are always quarrelling among themselves, and their wives always pick on some woman aboard the ship and say she ought to be put down in the steerage because she wears better clothes than they do. And the worst are the missionaries’ wives on the way home from China. They have got in the habit of being waited on by a lot of cheap servants out there, where the converts wash dishes for the sake of being under Christian influences. And when they get on board they have to look after themselves and their babies, and they won’t turn out of their cabins in the mornings, and altogether they lead the chief steward a dreadful life. So you see I have to keep a kind of general supervision over everybody’s morals and manners. And there is something very queer about Mrs. Potwin. I don’t mean that she doesn’t behave herself — she’s a lady as far as I know, and I make it a rule to take people as I find ’em — but the steward’s Japanese boys are all afraid of her. He knows Japanese ways and Japanese tricks as well as most foreigners, but he says he can’t make it out. You know there is always one steward they call the captain’s boy, who stands behind his chair at table and looks after his cabin, and it is always an understood thing, in the pantry aboard a ship, that the server takes care what he gives that boy to take to the skipper. The first thing that the chief steward saw was that the captain’s boy was changing plates, after he left the pantry, with the boy that waits on our end of my table, and that Mrs. Potwin was getting the bits put by for the captain. I never heard of such a thing in my life. I have seen young fellows with loads of money — what we call ‘high-rollers’ in California — chuck the boys five-dollar gold pieces as if they were quarters, but no one ever saw anybody else get the captain’s portion of a turkey before. What do you make of that?”
“If you say it is unusual I have no doubt it is,” said I, “but it isn’t a very grave matter, after all. I hardly think the captain is likely to starve to death.”
“Oh, that is only the beginning of it,” said the purser. “You know there is always a boy on night-watch, walking through the gangways to see there isn’t any sneakthieving going on ; but, if you can believe it, from the night we left San Francisco the boys seem to have arranged among themselves to stand an extra watch in the little passageway where Mrs. Potwin’s cabin is, as if they were afraid something might happen to her. We have to do that sort of thing sometimes, when a passenger has a touch of jim-jams, but as for its being done without any orders, in a sly kind of a way, it’s unheard-of. I tell you I believe that the whole steward’s crew are so devoted to that woman that if he gave them one order and she gave them another they would do what she said. And it isn’t only in the saloon either. I saw her down on the steerage-deck the other morning giving cakes to the children, and all the Japanese down there seemed to be afraid of her. She has never been to Japan in her life, and I don’t know what there is about her, but they all seem to think that she is some sort of a high cockalorum. I can’t make head or tail of it.”
“Why don’t you ask her ?” said I. ” She must have noticed it.”
“Of course she’s noticed it,” said the purser ; ” and what’s more, she takes it as a matter of course ; and more than that, she expects it. Now I’ll tell you another funny thing. As I was going on deck the other morriing she was standing at the head of the companionway ; one of the Japanese boys was speaking to her, and just as I came up he must have said something she didn’t like, for she flashed out with one of those funny little quick tempers of hers, and said a Japanese word to him. It was a word I’d never heard before, but I know it was Japanese. I can’t remember now what the word was, but I asked my own boy that night what it meant, of course without saying where I had heard it, and I could not get any satisfaction out of him. He muttered something about not understanding and has been looking sulky ever since. And the strangest part of the business is that she can’t speak Japanese at all, though she seems to want to learn. I taught her how to say kudasai and arigato and ‘How do you do’ and ‘Good-by’ and a few other little things like that, and it didn’t seem to come easy to her. I’ve been kicking myself ever since for having forgotten that word she said to the boy. I know I can talk Japanese as well as the ordinary foreigner, but I don’t know any word that will knock a man as cold as that did.”
“Surely,” said I, “if you think there is anything mysterious about all this, which seems to me to be a mere series of unimportant coincidences, you might ask her. You are certainly not afraid of her ; on the contrary, you and she are good friends, and she couldn’t strike you to the earth by aiming her terrible Japanese word at you, for you don’t know what it means. I’d ask her that, before anything else, if I were you.”
The purser put fresh ice in his glass, and then, looking around the room as if he imagined Mrs. Potwin might be hidden behind a curtain, ready to hurl the dreadful word, said :
“Between you and me, I’m afraid to.”
“Afraid!” said I; “surely that is too absurd.”
“Don’t you be too cocksure of that,” rejoined the purser. “I’ve been in Japan and China a good deal more than you have, and I tell you that there are a good many things it’s dangerous for a foreigner to meddle with.”
“But she is a foreigner herself,” I objected.
“She is and she isn’t,” said the purser. “I believe she’s never been to Japan before, and I believe she doesn’t know a dozen words of Japanese ; but the Japanese don’t treat her as a foreigner. As far as you and I can see she’s only a jolly young grasswidow making a trip around the world ; but you take my word for it there is something out of the ordinary going on, and I’ll be mighty glad when she’s off the ship.”
“But what harm can she do ?” said I. “You don’t mean to be preposterous enough to tell me that she has come on board to raise mutiny, seize the steamer, and set up in business as a female pirate?”
“No, I don’t think that,” said he, “and I don’t know but what I am more afraid of harm coming to her than to anybody else on board. The chief steward and I were talking it over yesterday, and he thinks the reason they all seem to be devoted to her is because they’re afraid of her.”
“Perhaps they think she has the evil eye,” I suggested. “I don’t remenaber hearing that they have a superstition of that sort in Japan, but it may be so. I can’t believe you are really afraid to speak to her about it, although I can understand that, as you have an official position on board the ship, you might feel awkward about it. But I don’t in the least mind asking her why it is that the Japanese boys take so much more trouble for her than they do for the rest of us. I remember, now you speak of it, that I have noticed it myself, and I see no reason why I should not ask her.”
“If you take my tip,” said the purser, “in the first place, you won’t mix yourself up in the business at all, won’t say anything about it to her; and, in the second place, if you do speak to her about it, take mighty good care there isn’t one of the Japanese within ear-shot when you do. Whether they are stewards or sailors or anything else, there always seems to be some one of them who finds an excuse to have some little job to do around where she is, whether she is in the saloon or on deck. They are the mildest, pleasantest people in the world, the Japs, take them all around, but queer things happen sometimes. Aboard one of the other boats of the line they had a French passenger one trip who had been obliged to leave Nagasaki because he had maltreated a Japanese girl there, and one moonlight night when he was leaning over the stern somebody must have tipped up his heels, for another passenger who had left him standing there a few minutes before found him missing when he came back. There was no reason to believe that he had committed suicide either.”
“If there is any danger of that sort in store for me I must persuade Mrs. Potwin to teach me the necromantic word, and then if one of the enchanted stewards tries to throw me overboard from your spellbound steamer I can wither him on the spot,” said I. “And now I think I will go up and get a breath of air before I turn in.”
IT WAS NEARLY MIDNIGHT, but I found Mrs. Potwin sitting in her deck-chair, with one of the enamoured youths of the smoking-room elongated at her side, and when I approached she bade him go away and leave me his chair. He obeyed her with shame-faced docility, and as I spread his rug over my knees, I asked her why she was not below in her cabin.
“Because it distresses the missionaries’ wives when I stay on deck after eleven o’clock, and I like it up here in the moonlight anyway.”
“But what have the missionaries’ wives done to you? They are very worthy people in their way, and I don’t see why you want to shock them.”
“Oh, I do it on principle, just as I wear short sleeves in the morning. Women always make themselves disagreeable to me, and I always make myself disagreeable to women. It has been that way ever since I was a little girl, and I am a perverse child still, you see. I have a big doll down in my steamer -trunk now. I never go anywhere without it. And some evening when I want to tease the missionaries’ wives very badly, I’m going to bring it out in the saloon and play with it. You see, I’m only nineteen, and I don’t look more than sixteen, so I have a right to do silly things like that if I want to.”
“You might occupy your time more profitably,” said I. “Why don’t you try to learn a little Japanese? You would find the country much more interesting if you understood the language.”
“It won’t take me long to pick it up once I’m there,” she replied. “I can learn a language easily enough if I can hear people talking it, but I hate to study it out of a book.”
I thought I had made my opportunity then, and was on the point of asking her about the wonderful Japanese word, when I saw one of the stewards standing outside the chart-room, well within ear-shot of us; and, although I was half ashamed to pay any heed to the purser’s caution, I thought I would wait to put my question until we were quite alone. I knew, too, that it would be a long story, if she told me anything at all, and I didn’t want to stay on deck until two o’clock in the morning, even for the sake of scandalizing the missionaries’ wives. So, after I had let her talk about nothing at all for a little while, I went below, leaving her alone in her chair with the moonlight shining full on her yellow hair, and the Japanese boy standing near, like a little wooden soldier on sentry duty.
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